Life & Culture

Speaking up for Israel’s women

Dr Alice Shalvi is being honoured next week for her contribution to Israeli society. Could she have done as much if she'd stayed in the UK?


Alice Shalvi has come a long way since her first feminist triumph — changing the rules at Cambridge University’s Jewish society so that women could lead Shabbat songs. After decades battling for women’s rights in Israel she is due, on Monday, to be honoured in the Knesset as one of the country’s most remarkable immigrants.

Her career has been dizzyingly busy but she is finally giving herself a break at the age of 90, and is sitting serenely in her Jerusalem garden when I arrive for our interview.

For much of the 1980s Dr Shalvi was simultaneously heading a school where she was pioneering a whole new direction in religious girls’ education; directing the Israel Women’s Network which she established; and lecturing in English literature at Hebrew University, where she was associate professor. She was also one of the first activists going head-to-head with the rabbinate on the issue of agunot, women refused a religious divorce by their husbands.

Had she not upped and left Britain in 1949, blazing a blue-and-white trail to the young Jewish state, she doubts that she would have made such a significant impact on society.

“If I’d stayed in England I don’t know whether the Jewish community would have given me the opportunity of contributing the way I have here, clearly not, but I wouldn’t have been able to do it in the non-Jewish community either, because I was an outsider.”

“I was never terribly fond of Anglo-Jewry — it was sort of parve.”

While she is moving at a slower pace these days, she is still busy reviewing her memoirs, and preparing for a lecture on one of her specialisms, Shakespeare.

She has received many honours to date, including Israel’s top civilian honour, the Israel Prize, but this is the first connected to her background as a British immigrant. It is the Bonei Zion Prize from Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organisation that promotes aliyah, to “recognise Anglos who have made a major contribution to the State of Israel.”

It is an apt award for a woman who sees much of her life as promoting values in Israel which she picked up in Britain.

“I think my liberalism and my tolerance and the way in which I value tolerance comes from Britain,” she says, when we discuss her formative high school and university years. She thinks it was also in Cambridge, where she served as as secretary, treasurer and president of the student Jewish Society, that she acquired the skills that propelled her in to Israel’s communal life.

But her perfect English accent and her very British manners and values are intriguing given that she has lived only a sixth of her 90 years in the UK. She was born in the German city of Essen, and her family fled the Nazis to England when she was eight. Only 15 years later she was heading by boat to Israel. More unexpected is the revelation that she was only a British citizen for three of these years, because she received British papers a few months after the war and was classed until then as an “alien.” Her non-British status meant that she even had to report regularly to the police when at Cambridge.

Part of what has made her flourish in Israel is the fact that she felt like an outsider and then moved to a state that was being built by fellow immigrants. “The moment I arrived here it was psychologically incredible. In relation to the average British person I’m short — I was never more than five-foot-one and today I’m less. But suddenly, I felt tall.”

For her, Israel was love at first sight, much as it was with Moshe Shalvi, whom she met and married the year after arriving. They brought up six children together, and, unusually for a man in the 1970s, he relished taking over household duties when his wife’s work was thriving. She says that her husband, who died in 2013, was perfect. But she is more critical of her country.

She is disappointed with its handling of the conflict with the Palestinians and believes that it should be prepared to pull out of the settlements — even though one of her daughters lives there — and to divide Jerusalem, though this would pain her. Shalvi has wanted a deal with the Palestinians for decades, and in 1989 took part in a meeting of Israeli and Palestinian women in Brussels, including the Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi, where they came up with a rough peace plan.

On a subsequent encounter with Ashwari, Shalvi managed something that few others have achieved — she left the famously-verbose Palestinian spokeswoman speechless. It was at a Washington conference in 1991 and Ashwari had just lambasted Israel from the podium with a combative speech. Jewish delegates asked Shalvi to respond. “I was scared stiff,” she admits. “I said, ‘I want to talk to Hanan, I want Hanan back here.’ She came on stage and I put my arms around her and we hugged. I said that we are women; the ones who should make peace. She was literally speechless. We embraced again.”

When the young Alice Shalvi was fresh off the boat, she hoped to go into social work. However, the main focus of this profession in Israel was helping Jewish immigrants from Arab countries, and she lacked the necessary languages. So she slipped by accident into academia, responding to an advert for people to teach English as a foreign language for a Hebrew University degree, and then specialising in English literature and Shakespeare in particular.

She fought for women’s rights during her time in academia, and at some points found that her work there reminded her of the scale of the challenge that lay ahead. In the seventies, after setting up the English department at the new Ben Gurion University, she decided to put herself forward for the institution’s humanities and social sciences dean. Those overseeing the selection were flabbergasted. “The first sentence that came our of their mouths was ‘but you’re a woman.’ I was shocked and it was so humiliating.” This was one of the experiences that compelled her, in 1984, to help to establish the Israel Women’s Network — an organisation that works through litigation and legislation to advance the status of women in Israel.

Of all her achievements, Shalvi is the most visibly excited when discussing the school that she developed. They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and when Pelech, the school that two of her daughters were attending, looked set to close, she decided to keep it open by taking over as head — and ended up inventing a new approach to girls’ education.

She moved away from standard grading to new methods, including take-home exams and assignments testing research abilities, instituted a democratic student council, and started offering subjects that were unusual then like Yiddish and environmental studies. She placed emphasis on students studying all the sacred texts that boys study, and feeling empowered in religious practice. Family planning was taught and there were dialogues with students from other educational institutions, including secular-Jewish schools and Palestinian schools.

Pelech is today considered a byword for progressive Orthodox girls’ education, has grown to a large campus in Jerusalem, and spawned other Pelech schools around the country. Graduates of these schools have disproportionately high influence in the military, in religious communities, and in education, and Shalvi is proud of the changes they are bringing about — especially in the mindset of men.

She said that women’s Jewish scholarship today is “amazing,” with many Pelech graduates at the forefront, and commented: “The men have come to accept the notion of equality for males and females in Jewish study and this is a great and very important change.” Some are becoming “agents of change” in more egalitarian ritual observance.

To some, she crossed too many boundaries. The dialogues with Palestinian students were controversial, and pressure from some parents and from the state’s religious education system led to her resignation in 1990. She later crossed another boundary — she had always been Modern Orthodox, but in the 1990s moved to a Conservative synagogue, looking for increased women’s prayer rights.

Looking back on her life, does Shalvi have regrets? Yes — all her success has come at a cost. “I wasn’t with the children as much as I should have been. I see now by from how much time my children spend with my grandchildren and I’m sorry, I feel I missed out. If I could go back in time I wouldn’t take on quite the same degree of communal work.”

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